Turtle Centre staff launch protest campaign

Management says an audit into complaints has been carried out.

Turtle Centre workers gather under a tree for shade during a protest outside the West Bay facility on Friday. Earlier in the morning, about 50 staffers took part. - Photo: Norma Connolly

Update: 5:20pm: The board of directors of the Turtle Centre issued a statement late Friday afternoon in response to the protest by the facility’s staff, stating that the findings of an internal audit into staff complaints were expected soon.

In the statement, the board confirmed receipt of a signed letter of petition from staff through the Ministry of Tourism, stating that it had subsequently sought mediation through the government’s Internal Audit Department.

“This request to the Internal Audit Department was met expeditiously and an investigation has been ongoing over the last six weeks. The Internal Auditors have met with all staff members, inclusive of those who spoke on camera at this morning’s peaceful protest. It is the Board’s understanding that the findings and recommendations of this report are imminent,” the statement noted.

It added that the board and the executive management were “unable to make any further comments whilst an investigation is being conducted”.

Original story: Staff of the Cayman Turtle Conservation and Education Centre held a protest demonstration outside the West Bay tourist facility Friday morning, to highlight what they say are unfair work practices.

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One of the employees, Kerry Ann Fearon, who has worked at the centre for two years, said the group had organised a peaceful protest because of ongoing issues “that got worse during the pandemic”.

She said staff had repeatedly brought various concerns to management and the board of directors at the Turtle Centre, regarding such matters as “staff being unfairly let go, staff not getting paid, using our vacation days and sick days just to get paid”.

“They’re not following the law,” she said, as she and about a dozen colleagues stood outside the Turtle Centre on North West Point Road. Earlier in the morning, more than 50 staffers had gathered to protest. As the day wore on, and as customers began to show up at the centre, several of the employees returned to work.

“Everybody here has a different story,” Fearon said, adding that almost all had encountered issues with their pay or work hours.

Several incumbent and prospective politicians in the West Bay districts came to the centre Friday morning to talk to staff. These included West Bay North incumbent Bernie Bush, in whose district the Turtle Centre is located, Rolston Anglin, Mario Ebanks, Katherine Ebanks-Wilks, and McKeeva Bush, who said he had entered the facility’s building to try to speak to management, but neither chief executive officer Tim Adam nor chief operating officer Peggy Hamilton were on site at the time.

Staff at the centre said they were disappointed that by midday Friday, no member of management or the board had arrived to speak to staff.

Friday’s walk-out came after 60 employees recently signed a letter addressed to senior government officials expressing a lack of confidence in Adam, and raising concerns about a possible Immigration Law breach relating to the renewal of Canadian Hamilton’s contract in January after a qualified Caymanian reportedly applied for her job, but was not interviewed.

The Cayman Turtle Conservation and Education Centre in West Bay.

Fearon said she understood that the Turtle Centre carried out an internal audit following receipt of that letter, but said management “refused to deal with our issues here”.

“They corresponded with us one or two times, but then were silent,” she said. “So, the staff decided to do this this morning.”

Victoria Pitta, who has worked in the Turtle Centre’s accounts department for 23 years, said she and some others at the facility had been put on bi-weekly contracts, working by the hour, rather than on a full-time salary. Despite raising objections to this to senior management at the centre, nothing has been done about it, she said.

The employees say they will end their protest once management has “a serious talk” with them and addresses some of the matters they have raised.

Fearon and Pitta said the straw that broke the camel’s back for employees was a Public Accounts Committee meeting in November last year in which it was revealed that senior staff at the centre had received a pay rise in error.

More than 20 people, including Adam and Hamilton, received the monthly payments in error, at a cost of $27,303, the PAC heard.

Employees at the Turtle Centre told the Compass that salaries of staff had been cut and that management had told them that no one could get a pay rise, based on an audit by Deloitte. When the erroneous pay hike was brought up in the PAC, “that was the breaking point for employees here, when they heard that”, Fearon said.

The Cayman Compass has reached out for comment to the centre, Tim Adam and Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, whose ministry is responsible for the facility.

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